The newly elected president of the Austrian bishops' conference has sought to clarify his role in the publication of a book that suggests how a Church blessing of same-sex couples might be "celebrated" in Catholic churches.

Archbishop Franz Lackner of Salzburg was elected last week to chair the Austrian bishops' conference. He has been connected to a controversial book concerning the possibility of "official" liturgical blessings of homosexual unions.

While Lackner has been reported to have commissioned or even published the book, a spokesperson said June 18 that the archbishop put in motion a study project on same-sex liturgical blessings, but he did not oversee the publication of that particular text.

The book, "The Benediction of Same-Sex Partnerships," is edited by Father Ewald Volgger, director of the Institute for Liturgical Studies and Sacramental Theology at the Catholic Private University of Linz.

In its June 16 report on Lackner's election as head of the Austrian bishops' conference, CNA noted that the archbishop had served as chairman of the liturgical commission that commissioned the book.

Other reports have suggested a more direct connection between Lackner and the text.

In an April interview about the book's release with KirchenZeitung, Volgger said that "the Austrian liturgical commission, chaired by Arcbishop Lackner, asked us to deal with" liturgical issues related to homosexuality, including the question of blessings for same-sex couples, which are the topic of the book.

English newspaper The Tablet reported May 6 that the book was "initiated by the archdiocese of Salzburg," and that "the Austrian liturgical commission, chaired by Archbishop Franz Lackner of Salzburg had commissioned the book's authors to address the question of an official benediction."

New Ways Ministries, which describes itself as a "a gay-positive ministry of advocacy and justice for lesbian and gay Catholics," reported May 25 that Lackner was responsible for publishing the book, because of "his desire for a more inclusive church."

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Television news program EWTN News Nightly also reported June 16 that Lackner commissioned the book. CNA and EWTN News Nightly are both services of EWTN News.

But in a June 18 email obtained by CNA, a spokesperson for the archbishop said that Lackner did not directly commission the book edited by Volgger, because his term as liturgical commission chairman ended in 2018. The archbishop did initiate the liturgical commission's years-long study project on liturgical blessings for same-sex couples, the spokesperson explained.

While he was chairman, Lackner "asked the LKÖ to discuss the topic of liturgical offers for people in homosexual relationships in general," the spokesperson said.

In the book's foreword, Volgger offered more insight on the archbishop's request.

"In the Liturgical Commission for Austria (LKÖ) on February 27th 2015 in Salzburg, the then chairman, Archbishop Franz Lackner, asked for an exchange on the question of blessings of homosexual couples. The occasion was a blessing ceremony in Switzerland, which had great media attention. In the discussion it became clear that  a moral theological clarification is needed, as well as a change in the Magisterium on this point to allow for an official liturgy for same-sex couples."

The blessing ceremony Volgger referenced was performed by a Swiss Protestant Reformed minister; the media attention Volgger referenced included an interview in which the minister, Sibylle Forrer, explained why she conferred the blessing.

According to Lackner's spokesperson, the archbishop's request "led to a study day in February 2016 and the LKÖ agreed, that the results of this study day should be compiled and that the topic should be further monitored."

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The 2020 text was part of the ongoing development of that project, as Volgger indicated to KirchenZeitung, as was a 2019 symposium on the topic. But since November 2018, Bishop Anton Leichtfried of St. Polten has overseen the Austrian liturgical commission. 

In his April interview, Volgger said that from his viewpoint, there are "a considerable number of bishops who would like to see a rethinking of sexual morality for the evaluation of same-sex partnerships."

The priest also said that "a benediction," of a same-sex couple "as it is proposed from a liturgical-theological point of view, would also have an official character, through which the Church expresses the obligation of fidelity and the exclusiveness of the relationship."

In 2003, The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said that "there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God's plan for marriage and family."

CNA asked Lackner's spokesperson why the archbishop was only now attempting to clarify his involvement, given that he has been reported for months to be responsible for the book. CNA also asked whether the book has the official approval of the Austrian bishops' conference, of which Lackner is now president, or of the conference's liturgical commission.

The archdiocese has not yet responded.